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Fourth loss would be the most painful blow

By Kevin Paul Dupont
Globe Staff / May 14, 2010

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Well now, how did it come to this? Bruins fans, who a week ago had their favorite team pegged as a shoo-in for the Eastern Conference finals, now wonder how something so good could turn out so excruciatingly bad.

Game 7 tonight at the Garden, Bruins vs. Flyers, and to the winner goes the eighth-seeded Canadiens to figure out who will represent the East in the Stanley Cup finals. Bizarre.

What was once Boston’s commanding 3-0 series lead over the Flyers now stands all even, with the Bruins shooting blanks, the Flyers winning with a goaltender who has less than 100 minutes of playoff experience, and an ignominious bit of history possibly to be threaded into those Black-and-Gold sweaters. Only two clubs in NHL history — the Red Wings in 1942 and the Penguins in 1975 — have bolted to 3-0 leads in a best-of-seven series and ultimately exited at the wrong end of the handshake line.

“The Garden is going to be rocking,’’ said Bruins winger Milan Lucic, who scored Boston’s only goal in the 2-1 loss Wednesday night at the Wachovia Center that squared the series. Asked if he were nervous about the matchup, the rock-jawed Lucic added, “No, not nervous. I think we should embrace the challenge and have fun with it.’’

The series began to unravel for the Bruins in the first period of Game 3, the moment Flyers captain Mike Richards smoked an unsuspecting David Krejci with a heavy hit as the talented Bruins pivot received a pass from Zdeno Chara and attempted to motor over his blue line. If Boston’s postseason ends tonight, that hit, and Krejci’s need to have surgery on the dislocated wrist that it caused, will stand as Exhibit A in the Broad Streeters’ history-making turnaround.

However, the Bruins were a compromised lot even before that hit. It’s easy to forget that now, with all the focus and fret surrounding the squandered lead. But remember:

■They lost Marco Strum to a blown-out knee on his opening shift of Game 1.

■They also have been without slick defenseman Dennis Seidenberg (wrist surgery) for the entire postseason.

Minus their speediest winger (Sturm), arguably their top playmaking pivot (Krejci), and perhaps their most polished and efficient blue liner (Seidenberg), it may be a greater surprise that the Bruins won three in a row than lost three in a row.

Of course, the Flyers have been hurting, too. They entered the series minus top goal scorer Jeff Carter, and without their No. 1 sandpaper guy, Ian Laperriere. It took until Game 4 for pesky forward Simon Gagne to get back in the lineup after undergoing surgery for a broken big toe. They also lost starting goalie Brian Boucher midway through Game 5, forcing Michael Leighton into emergency relief that night and his first career postseason start in Game 6.

Hey, it’s the playoffs — injuries are as basic as the puck and stick. But just as the Flyers struggled early in the series to cope with their significant losses, the Bruins have been hobbled as their casualties have grown. Without Krejci and Sturm, they simply are not the same team that dismissed the Sabres in six games. In fact, it’s a fairly safe bet they would not have beaten the Sabres if those two had been sidelined.

All of which is to say, once again, that the Stanley Cup playoffs present the most grueling physical challenge in North American pro sport. Lineups that look good on paper often shred almost as easily as the paper itself. If Sturm and Krejci had remained upright and in uniform, the series probably would have ended Monday night in Game 5 at the Garden. At the very least, Boucher and/or Leighton would have been faced with more and better scoring chances.

Bruins fans worth their tattered pictures of Bobby Orr flying through the air in 1970 no doubt will remember how the Bruins built a 2-0 series lead over Pittsburgh in the ’91 conference finals. Then came Game 3 at Pittsburgh, and Ulf Samuelsson’s nasty hit on Cam Neely, which derailed the Bruins from what would have been their third trip to the Cup finals in four years. After outscoring the Penguins, 11-7, in the first two games, the Bruins lost four straight by a collective 20-7.

Krejci isn’t as important to today’s Bruins as Neely was to the ’91 Bruins, but his loss has been profound, especially in the last two games. Game 5 had the Black and Gold at their worst, barely able to hold on to the puck, never mind make a play with it. In Game 6, after surviving an overwhelming start by the Flyers, they eventually were more efficient at gaining possession and holding the offensive zone. But they still struggled mightily to create plays, identify or make shooting lanes, test Leighton with challenging shots. Krejci’s stickhandling and playmaking no doubt would have led to more and better scoring chances.

In the end Wednesday night, they could boast of the work that helped them attempt 79 shots, though only 31 (39.2 percent) landed on goal, and only one (1.3 percent) actually made it behind Leighton.

That one goal, with Lucic pushing home a doorstep rebound off of a Dennis Wideman blast, took 59 minutes to create and required goalie Tuukka Rask to be pulled in favor of an extra attacker.

A far cry from the club’s halcyon days when Sanderson passed, Orr flew, and Johnny Pie poured a beer over hizzoner Kevin White’s head.

“We can get better and stronger in front of the net,’’ offered Chara, “and not get moved away from the post. We have to find a way to stay there.’’

Get there. Stay there. Put pucks in the net.

Or go home . . . as they’ve never been sent home before.

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at dupont@globe.com.

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